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What’s Really in Your Food?

by Ingrid Weihmann
In the nature of things

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Ingrid Weihmann is a nutritionist and co-owner, with Cliff Jefferson, of Only Natural, Timaru's organic shop.

I know that a lot of people got a real shake-up when they saw the recent TV3 documentary ‘What’s really in our food?’

We had many new faces in our shop Only Natural, and organic shops in other locations experienced the same phenomenon. The New Zealand supplier of the book ‘The Chemical Maze’, which helps to demystify food additives, subsequently ran out of copies.

Parents were dismayed to find that the supposedly healthy foods they are feeding their families are loaded with additives.

Not just the fast foods
If you ask most people what are unhealthy foods, they will nominate ‘fast foods’ from the likes of Macdonalds, KFC, and chip shops.

They do not realise that their own food cupboards are chock a block with ‘foods’ that are a very long way from the natural state of their base ingredients.

And most are blissfully unaware that the chemicals added by food scientists along the way to stabilise these foods and make them look and taste nice may carry health risks, especially to young children, whose body systems are more vulnerable.

Here are a few foods that your average reasonably health-conscious person might buy from the supermarket, which may not be as wholesome as they seem:

Sauce mixes/gravy mixes
So you’ve cooked up the meat/fish and lots of veges for a healthy stir-fry, and a jar or sachet of sauce mix just finishes it off, adding that special flavour and creaminess.
If you take the time to look at the ingredients panel, you are likely to find flavour enhancers (621 monosodium glutamate is the most harmful) and soy derivatives like hydrolysed vegetable protein. These additives give the product a powerful taste sensation.

However, they have been associated with a wide range of health issues including headaches, digestive and neurological problems.

Why not just add your own herbs and spices during cooking, and add a little salt to give it the desired piquancy? I generally use half a teaspoon of curry powder, ground cumin and ground coriander seed, a pinch of cayenne, and season with sea salt. The flavours of the individual ingredients are able to be expressed beautifully, rather than paralysed with artificial flavourings. Savour and enjoy.

Muesli bars
Food manufacturers can trade on the healthy image of these bars to trick you into buying rubbish. Be very selective in terms of how high the sugar content is and what additives are in the product.

I looked at just 4 bars from various manufacturers and the average sugar content was 38%, that’s more than one third of the whole bar! Furthermore, the ingredients list averaged at around 2 inches long – certainly these bars contain many ingredients you would not use at home, because they are created by food scientists not cooks.

These products are often aimed at kids because they are great for lunchboxes, which makes the crime even greater. You would be better to find a simple recipe for a home-made bar based around organic dried fruit, nuts and seeds, that actually sustains energy rather than playing havoc with blood sugar levels.

Tinned Fish
You think that you are making a healthy choice because you know that fish is a good source of protein, and that oily fish like tuna and salmon contain the omega-3 fats that you need for cellular health, heart, joints and so on. 

This is all perfectly true, but please look again at your ingredients panel. You will find that the ‘plain’ version contains fish, oil or water and salt, whereas the attractive-sounding flavoured versions contain a load of extras that you weren’t counting on.

For example, Sealord Tuna Sensations Lemon Pepper Flavour is 75% tuna. The rest is soya bean oil, water, sugar, black pepper, soya based vegetable broth, salt, food acid (330) and lemon flavour. Have you noticed that ingredient soya creeping into more and more foods? 

If you are not a label-reader you may have missed it. Soya is very hard to digest, is oestrogenic, suppresses the thyroid gland and is likely to be genetically modified into the bargain. Cumulative exposure to soya from all foods eaten can be considerable and can compromise your health.

Rice Crackers
They are low-fat, they are gluten-free so they must be good for you, right? Let’s be honest, rice wafers and crackers are pretty bland, so food manufacturers mess about with them a bit to make them really tasty. 

Rice wafers should contain no more than puffed brown rice and possibly salt for flavour. A sour cream and chives flavoured version of a well known brand found on New Zealand supermarket shelves  states on the label ‘We know it can be tricky to find genuinely healthy snacking options… with only 8% fat they’re a tasty & healthy substitute for bread and crackers.’ 

Well, first of all this rests on the generalisation that fat is bad for you, which is by no means proven. 

Secondly, if you look at the ingredients panel, you find that the product contains: brown rice (85%), sour cream and chives flavour [milk powder, rice flour, salt, dehydrated onion, sugar, inactive yeast, cheese powder {milk solids, cheese solids, starch, salt, vegetable fat, yeast extract, sodium phosphate dibasic, sugar, food acid (260, 296), thickener (415), anticaking agent (551)), yeast extract, hydrolysed vegetable protein (soy), flavour (flavour enhancer (627, 631), soy oil, cottonseed oil, antioxidant (307, 330, 304)), etc etc. 

The front panel states proudly ‘No MSG’, but makes no mention of the other flavour enhancers or hydrolysed vegetable protein, which may contain MSG. Our old friend soy appears again – you can see how the amount of soy eaten in a day can mount up unnoticed. The same manufacturer also makes a plain version which does not contain all of these extras.

Healthy eating means reading labels
These are just a couple of examples, but you get the picture. 

The moral of the story is that you must get used to reading labels – this is your source of power as a consumer. If necessary, get a pair of cheap glasses that you can carry with you – food manufacturers often make ingredient panels as small as they are allowed to by the Food Standards Code, because they want maximum space to sell the product to you, and you can’t use marketing spiel in a nutrition information panel. 

In general, the shorter the ingredients list the better – go for plain versions and then serve with other foods that will add depth of flavour. 

For example serve crackers with cheese, avocado, sprouts, egg mayonnaise and get your ‘taste sensation’ from the flavours and textures of these delicious toppings. Or serve up plain tinned fish with a home-made tomato sauce or a fresh salad. Make your own sauces and gravies using meat juices, tomatoes (tinned ones if need be) coconut cream and so on.
Healthy eating is keeping it simple – good honest wholesome ingredients prepared with love.

Food is fundamental
And if it takes you a bit longer to prepare, well remember that eating is a pretty fundamental part of life and making healthy meals is an activity that deserves respect. 

If you are a parent, teaching your children how to cook as they help you to make the meal is a life skill that one day they will thank you for, and you will be rewarded with happy, stable, well nourished children and grandchildren.

Ingrid Weihmann is a nutritionist and co-owner, with Cliff Jefferson, of Only Natural, Timaru's organic shop. 

For a list of food additives allowed in NZ food, their uses and potential health risks, see this page.


The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic